Life as an African-American Female Pastry Chef

Editor’s Note: In the restaurant industry, women make up 39% of the workforce according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Labor, filling such positions as line cook, pantry, prep and pastry. Yet, according to Department of Labor data released in 2014, only about 20% of head chef positions in the industry are held by women (which is actually down from 23% in 2006). In 2014, a Bloomberg Business article “Women Everywhere In Food Empires But No Head Chefs” shared their own research that in the leading 15 restaurant groups women occupied just 10 (6.3%) of the 160 head chef positions available.

Over the past two years, chefs such as Amanda Cohen, Dirty Candy, New York,  and Anita Lo, Annisa, New York, have said in The NY Times opinion section that there are several successful, talented women chefs, but there is gender bias in the media and financial support that has not put them in the forefront. Yet, if women are not leading kitchens in leading restaurants that are (and this is key) media darlings, how are they going to get more piece of the media coverage pie that is so important for iconic success in this industry?

In this second diversity piece, of what we hope is a 12-part series examining the diversity issues across the culinary industry, ACF member Kimberly Brock-Brown, CEPC, CCA, AAC, tells her story about coming up in the industry 30 years ago as a female African-American pastry chef and shares the perspective of young female cooks who she has encountered throughout her work in the industry now.

By Kimberly Brock-Brown

In my 30 plus years culinary career, I have been asked quite a few times about my experiences in such a male-dominated industry as cooking. Most of my time has been gratifying and full of learning and teachable moments. Then there are those moments that astound you or should I say, sucker punch the wind right out of you.

Sometimes the injustice was because I am a female and it wouldn’t matter if I were black, brown or white. Other times it was because I am a pastry chef, not the all-seeing, all-knowing executive chef. Then there are those instances when it’s the trifecta: I am a black, female and a pastry chef who was just wrong. It’s those gut-wrenching moments that really take your bravery as a woman chef to another level.

I stay because I am proud of my Certified Executive Pastry Chef credential through ACF. I am the first African-American female inducted into the American Academy of Chefs, an honor society for chefs. I enjoy meeting women and other minorities at ACF conferences and conventions. Change does happen when effort is being made. And I have realized that the best change happens when you are at the table to give your insights and personal expertise. I always advise students to join and be active in their local ACF chapters. Networking is vital to their growth and success in this sometimes thankless profession. Nothing beats the networking opportunities afforded to you through the organization. I have had great support and made some great friends because of ACF and I plan to use my lifetime membership to the fullest.

I was an ACF Education Foundation apprentice from 1981-1984. During my apprenticeship, I was asked about my dedication to the profession. Would I be getting married and having babies after graduating? The executive chef didn’t want to waste his time teaching me the job of running his department if having a family was my goal. Trying to recover from the shock of this conversation, I said emphatically NO. I was only 21. I barely had a boyfriend and babies were the last thing I wanted. I know this was not a conversation he had with male apprentices.

I could be wrong, but I would bet money on the fact that the males in my apprenticeship program did not have to fend off unwanted sexual advances from their supervisors or deal with the innuendo of sexual references. No one knew exactly what sexual harassment was in the 1980s. And, if you did, why would you put yourself through the torturous journey of reporting it such as Anita Hill?

I wasn’t allowed in the butcher shop to complete my required training. It wasn’t considered “women’s work” and the executive chef didn’t deem it necessary for me to know. My time was better served elsewhere, such as eight months instead of the typical three months in the banquet kitchen or always working pantry or the pastry station in the property’s fine-dining restaurant. I never worked sauté, grill or broiler as those stations were for men who were serious about their careers. Of course, those were the stations that paid more. From the start, women were relegated to lesser paying jobs and made to feel inferior when it came to cooking.

Early in my career, I ran a hotel pastry department. One day the executive chef approached me because he was getting too much flak from the sous chefs (all men) about me doing my department’s schedule. I could schedule my days off accordingly as well as my assistant’s and the hourly team while everyone else was at the mercy of the chef’s feelings and a half-hearted weekend rotation. Why he didn’t just tell the sous chefs that he didn’t want to do my schedule because it added to his workload is beyond me. He didn’t how to schedule for a 24-hour operation with different job descriptions.

Now I have to tell my team that I am no longer allowed to write my department’s schedule for reasons I don’t understand. It was humiliating.

After the second phone call the executive’s chef received because no one was in the bakeshop at 1 a.m., my department’s scheduling responsibilities were returned to me. However, each sous chef was given scheduling responsibilities as well.

In 1997, during an ACF public town hall forum diversity issues within the organization were glossed over and our concerns not recognized. It gave me reason to pause. Pastry chefs and bakers were not given the same attention and forums that savory chefs received, hence the formation of the pastry and bakers guild in Williamsburg, Virginia. Chefs and cooks of color were not being taken seriously, hence the creation of the Black Culinary Alliance (BCA) and the Minority Summit. However, diversity forums that ACF did host for Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans were popular and well attended. The development of the Women in Worldchefs initiative was created to help address the second-class treatment and disrespect of female chefs.

These are my platforms. All of them at times uniquely affect me. I have experienced a lot of gut-wrenching moments. These moments do affect me but do not necessarily define who I am. There is no testimony without a test.

My experiences are what propel me to help others and to be of service to the women and minorities in this crazy culinary profession. I know now that I need to be seen and heard, so that those who have aspirations will know they are not alone. They can reach out to others. It is much easier to achieve it if you can see it.

I’ll never forget meeting a female Caribbean cooks on a cruise line ship while proctoring a certification exam in 2012. She had not passed the written exam, which meant she could not take the cooking portion of the test. Her teammates and she were not serious in studying for a test that was always given to them by white males. They saw no point, because all of their supervisors were white Europeans, so to them their motivation for advancement was invalid. Until she saw me in the galley, she had never seen a woman of color as an executive chef. This brief encounter changed both of our worlds. She needed the affirmation that women of color are succeeding in her chosen profession. And I realized how younger culinarians needed to see images like themselves being successful.

“Here I Am!” (AuthorHouse, 2012) is my book written to tell my story and open a dialogue on what can be done about the lack of diversity in this industry. Our national office is filled with the history of ACF members and officers who had the opportunity to affect changes in the U.S. culinary arts. Sadly, female and chefs of color are not well represented on those walls of honor.

Social media and networking has allowed me to meet many female and minority culinarians who do not want to join ACF because of the lack of inclusion and diversity. Not everyone wants to be the first as I have been in my career. Not everyone will take the time to insist and demand to have a seat at the table, as I will. To be a growing and successful association, diversity must be a priority.

Every business and organization should have a diverse representation as it only makes the team more smart and stronger. However, nothing is perfect, and I have seen some evolution in this area within ACF.

This is the 21st century. We need to stop talking about diversity and just do it.


The Workplace: How Chefs Celebrate the Holidays

By Amelia Levin

As chefs, it’s no secret many of you are forced to move around your own family holiday plans to accommodate the nature of the job. Country club chefs – with their season-long private dinners and massive banquet brunches and dinners – have an especially challenging position when it comes to planning for the holidays, in both work and personal life. Here’s a look at how two country club chefs prepare for their busiest time of year.

Planning Ahead
Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. hosts as many as 1,200 diners just for a Monday corporate holiday event, and up to 7,000 covers a week during December thanks to other banquet dinners and seasonal brunches on the weekends. The club also sends cooks to members’ houses and businesses for private holiday dinners and gatherings. “To put it in perspective, we do about $5 million in food and beverage a year, and $1 million of that is in December,” says Jonathan Moosmiller, CMC, executive chef.

That said, planning starts early – by late September or early October, most major events around the winter holidays have been booked and finalized.  Thanksgiving plans come earlier, naturally, as the club cooks 80 turkeys (for about 700 people) for a Thanksgiving day lunch from 11 a.m.–3 p.m.  Moosmiller’s staff starts the brining process as earlier as 5 days prior, and then batch cooks all the sides throughout the week.

Timothy Recher, CEC, executive chef of The Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va. plans for the winter holidays an entire year in advance due to the massive volumes. The Club hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for up to 1,800 guests and will see anywhere from 600 to 1,200 guests just for a brunch with Santa during December. While the club is not affiliated with the military, many members include retired and active military members as well as civilians.

“We try to book parties about a year in advance, and then do as much as we can in the weeks leading up to the events,” says Recher. “We start making the turkey stock a week in advance and make a list of everything else we can make ahead of time.”

For Christmas, the Club hosts four-course, family style dinners for groups of 4 to 10 or more on the 22nd and 23rd and sees about 700 guests a night. To feed the hard-working kitchen crew, Recher switches up the nightly staff meal with seasonal favorites like turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, and a brunch menu on Easter and Mother’s Day.

Celebrating Themselves
At The Army Navy Country Club, since the last Thanksgiving seating ends at 4 p.m., Recher and his staff are able to celebrate the holiday later in the evening. “My wife is a great cook so she will prepare food during the day and we’ll have people over later at night rather than in the afternoon,” he says. The same goes for Christmas Eve, when the Club closes at 2 p.m.

At Southern Hills, because many staff members are younger and have moved away from their families to work at the Club, Moosmiller extends an invitation to the crew to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner at his home.

“Since we leave at 4 on Thanksgiving evening, we have put on a holiday dinner at our house for whomever on our staff would like to come,” says Moosmiller. “We usually have 15-25 people. I’ve had to celebrate several holidays away from my family and didn’t enjoy it. At least this way they get to have a comfortable place to celebrate and at least have a good meal.”

On Christmas, since the club closes at 3 p.m., Moosmiller hosts a cocktail party for staff members at 5 p.m. at his house, and then by 9 p.m. everyone has gone off to do their thing and he can open presents with his children. Back at the Club, the staff even decorates a tree for the kitchen so everyone can take part in the spirit of the holiday though they’re working long hours.

“We string garland around the beverage station and I write staff names on the stockings and people can stuff them with different gifts so everyone goes home with something on Christmas Eve,” says Moosmiller. “It helps keep everyone reminded that it’s Christmas because you can lose site of that when you’re in the kitchen all the time and don’t get to see any of the decorations. We even decorate the tree with kitchen-themed ornaments like spoons, ladles and whisks.”

Now that’s holiday spirit.

The Definition of Hospitality

“Yes.” That was Kevin Mitchell’s answer when he was approached by food historian Dr. David Shields to take on the part of 19th century African-American chef Nat Fuller and reenact an 1865 iconic biracial banquet that took place in Charleston, South Carolina. A year later, along with key Charleston community members, Mitchell and Shields pulled off one of the most significant post-Civil War events to happen in the South—again.

Chef Nat Fuller
Nat Fuller was born in 1812 on a plantation on the Ashley River in Charleston. He was sold several times before he was bought by William Gatewood, a 20-year-old lottery agent from Virginia. At age 15, Fuller began his training as a butler and a gourmet cook, because Gatewood was interested in increasing his social standing in Charleston. Fuller apprenticed under some of the best cooks in the area. He had a talent for cooking and became a slave for hire, catering elite events in Charleston. Eventually, with financial backing from his owner, Fuller secured a building where he established his first restaurant, The Bachelor’s Retreat. In addition, he explored other ventures, such as a vendor of game, to kick-start his catering business.

When the Civil War ended, Fuller hosted a banquet, serving food many war-weary Charlestonians had not eaten in a long time. Most importantly, he invited black people and white people to sit at the same table to eat this meal and celebrate the end of the war. He brought the community together in a way that it had never been and forced the issues of the day. According to Shields, the Fuller feast helped shaped Charleston after the war.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The 2015 Fuller feast
In spring 2015, the South was preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and a group of Charleston chefs, food producers and Shields were preparing to share their  story of Nat Fuller with the U.S., following a year of focused research. Mitchell worked with Charleston chefs B.J. Dennis, a local chef immersed in Gullah Geechee cuisine, and Sean Brock, chef/owner of several Southern restaurants and known for his work in preserving Southern food, to create the banquet menu by researching menus from other Fuller catering events. Unfortunately, the original menu for the 1865 banquet was lost.

The original location of The Bachelor’s Retreat still stands in downtown Charleston, but in its current use, it could not house an 80-person banquet. Instead, because Fuller was a man of several talents, mixology being one of them, a cocktail reception was hosted at the Church Street location, with cocktails such as smashes made with heritage Bradford watermelon brandy, gin with bitters and carbonated shrubs.

The bill of fare
The bill of fare featured such starters as turtle soup and oyster soup with celery, a seafood course of fried whiting, shrimp pie and poached bass, and a poultry course of capon chasseur, aged duck with Seville oranges and squab with truffle sauce. In addition, venison, lamb and beef were served.

“The types of dishes for that time would have been heavily influenced by French cuisine and chefs such as Antonin Carême,” says Mitchell, who looked at cookbooks of the era to get a better sense of how food would have been prepared and served. Food service was Russian style, which was the service style for the original Fuller feast. Sides and homemade relishes were placed on the table and passed around, while servers brought out each meat course on trays and served the guests. After each course, the table settings were removed and new settings added before the next course.

Two of the dishes served at the banquet were regional delicacies of the time period, turtle soup and shrimp pie. Mitchell had some apprehension about serving actual turtle soup and planned to serve mock turtle at the feast. But after some thought and a discussion with Shields, he changed his mind and used turtle for the reenactment feast soup. For the most part, food that is considered Southern today was not served in society at that time. Charlestonians dined on the dishes that were in style, such as duck a l’orange and charlotte russe.

Fuller was a fan of sauces and ketchups, says Mitchell. Many of his favorite sauces on his menus were served at the reenactment feast. Worcestershire anchovy, mushroom ketchup, walnut ketchup and butter caper sauce were at the table for guests to try and to add to their sides.

Community collaboration
Volunteers and sponsors came from all over to help. Students and chef instructors from the Culinary Institute of Charleston, where Mitchell is an instructor, volunteered on the floor and in the kitchen. Forrest Parker, executive chef at Old Village Post House in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, volunteered last-minute to help cook, one of several chefs who volunteered on the day.

The Medical Society of South Carolina and the Society of the Cincinnati of the State of South Carolina, two of Charleston’s oldest societies, put their blessing on the feast and had representatives on hand to say a few words. Fuller had catered their banquets. Several Southern food producers and foundations put their blessing on the reenactment feast and gave their support. The Lowcountry Digital History Initiative has a section of its online digital library dedicated to Nat Fuller’s story, and Mitchell and Shields will continue to add to the digital library as new information is discovered.

             “The Nat Fuller feast was truly a collaborative effort,” says Mitchell. “With any event you learn collaboration, and I try to bring that spirit with me. Chefs know that they cannot prepare a meal by themselves.”

 Shields and the chefs on the project worked with Stephanie Barna, Home Team PR, Charleston, to plan the event. An invitation committee identified key members of the community in religious, political, secular and educational sectors, and Barna reached out to invite the 80 guests. Most were surprised to have been chosen to be a part of the feast and recreate a moment in history.

 Activism through hospitality
During the introduction at the feast, Mitchell, who played the part of Fuller, alluded to the “troubles of the past few weeks.” Guests knew that Mitchell was referring to race issues taking place in two U.S. cities, Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, reminding attendees around the two banquet tables that the issues of 1865 Charleston are still relevant today.

“Nat Fuller was a man who used his spirit of hospitality to bring people together at a time when the environment was not conducive to do so,” said Mitchell. “With that, I truly feel he was a man of great courage.”

The original dinner ruffled many aristocratic feathers, and one woman, who wrote about the feast in her journal, called it the “miscegenation” banquet. However, the dinner created a safe space for people talk. “It’s a custom once people break bread and share salt at a table they can do no harm to each other,” said Mitchell as Nat Fuller during the reenactment.

That night, other South Carolina cities hosted Nat Fuller feasts. Columbia, Clinton and Greenville also celebrated his legacy. Mitchell hopes that this dinner will serve as inspiration to other chefs across the nation who want to be a part of change and help facilitate important conversations over food. He has always felt that the things you do should make a statement, and he believes that even though Fuller was in the business of feeding people, he still wanted to do something thought-provoking.

            “It was needed 150 years ago, and it is needed today,” says Damon Fordham, a history professor/author and an attendee at the Fuller feast.

Lessons from the feast
Mitchell is an educator at heart, and this reenactment dinner feeds back to what he teaches in the classroom. He often tells his students that to look to the future, they have to spend some time in the past. “Everything we do in the kitchen today stems from something chefs did in the past,” he says. The feedback from the students is that they want to do more of these types of dinners.

Mitchell asks that chefs do some research on who Nat Fuller was as a chef and a man. Gather the right people around the table, those who exemplify the spirit of hospitality, and break bread.

       “You should never be afraid to rock the boat,” Mitchell says. “Chefs have done it for years. When we move from one trend to another, we make a statement.”

The Nat Fuller team

Dr. David Shields, food historian/professor, University of South Carolina, is an author of several books on food history including Southern Provisions: The Creation & Revival of a Cuisine (University Of Chicago Press, 2015). Shields discovered Nat Fuller and oversaw the research and reenactment event. He is passionate about shining a light on forgotten events and food.

Stephanie Barna, Home Town PR, oversaw invitations and media. As former editor of Charleston City Paper, Barna knew how to tell the story to news media and has experience hosting these types of events in Charleston. She is also motivated to solving the race issues in Charleston.

Kevin Mitchell, CEC, chef instructor, Culinary Institute of Charleston, Trident Technical College, researched the food of the period and Nat Fuller’s menus to create the reenactment feast menu. Mitchell played the role of Nat Fuller during the feast. He is interested in social issues and making a difference in his community. Mitchell is president of ACF Greater Charleston South Carolina Chapter.

B.J. Dennis, personal chef/caterer, Charleston, is an expert on Gullah Geechee cuisine. He played the role of Nat Fuller’s apprentice Tom Tully at the feast, and helped develop and research the feast menu. Dennis is passionate about Lowcountry cuisine and preserving the food history of Charleston.

Sean Brock, chef/owner, McCrady’s, Charleston; Husk, Charleston and Nashville, Tennessee; and Minero, Charleston and Atlanta, assisted Mitchell in menu research and prepared the fish course for the feast. He is the author of Heritage (Artisan, 2014), and is involved in preserving Southern food and its history.

Article by Jessica Ward.
Photos by Jonathan Boncek and courtesy of Stephanie Barna.